Guitars are made of numerous different parts, many of which are made of wood. The choice of wood in the guitar body (the solid body and laminate in electric guitars and the sides, back and top of acoustic guitars), neck and fretboard all contribute to the overall playability, feel and, of course, tone of the instrument. Since catalpa is used in the construction of guitars and basses, it's worth investigating whether it's a good tonewood or not.
Is catalpa a good guitar tonewood? Catalpa is a rare but good tonewood for guitar and bass (acoustic/electric). It's too soft for necks and fretboards, but its light weight is advantageous in solid and hollow bodies. Its tone is resonant with great sustain and articulation, defined as neutral/balanced with a subtle harmonic profile.
In this article, we'll discuss if and how catalpa tonewood is used in electric, acoustic, classical and bass guitar construction with a keen focus on its tone.
Note: in my research for this article, I used Sweetwater's extensive guitar database to find examples of guitars with catalpa in their construction. The links to the guitars in this article will send readers to Sweetwater's site for more information. Sweetwater is featured in My New Microphone's Top 10 Best Online Audio Gear/Equipment Retailers.
Table Of Contents
- Characteristics Of Catalpa Tonewood
- Is Catalpa A Good Electric Guitar Tonewood?
- Is Catalpa A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?
- Is Catalpa A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?
- Other Tonewoods
Characteristics Of Catalpa Tonewood
Catalpa is a tonewood from the hardwood species Catalpa speciosa (genus: Catalpa – family: Bignoniaceae). Other names include northern catalpa, hardy catalpa, western catalpa, cigar tree and catawba-tree. This species is native to the midwestern United States.
Catalpa's heartwood ranges from a neutral tan colour to rich golden brown, often with a green hue. It's a ring-porous wood with a straight grain and an open, coarse texture.
Catalpa is not listed in the CITES Appendices, nor is it listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Catalpa is relatively easy to work with, thanks to its stability and softness. It takes well to hand tools and machines, and it glues and finishes well. Care should be taken to avoid denting the wood while working and to fill the large pores for a smooth finish. It doesn't bend very well and is liable to change shape after bending.
Catalpa is very resonant and responsive, offering superb attack and sustain. Its tone isn't particularly rich in overtones; rather, it clearly produces the fundamentals. Its high-end is notably clear as well, and it can be considered a relatively bright tonewood, especially given its lower density and hardness.
Here are a few notable catalpa specs:
- Hardwood/Softwood: Hardwood
- Colour: grayish tan to a richer golden brown
- Grain: straight
- Texture: coarse
- Pores: ring-porous
- Density: 460 kg/m3 / 28.72 lb/ft3
- Janka Hardness (Typical): 2,450 N / 550 lbf
- Elastic Modulus: 8.35 GPa / 1,211,000 psi
- Tone (Warm/Bright Scale): bright
- Price: moderate
Here are links to the official website of the IUCN and Cites:
• IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
• CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)
Is Catalpa A Good Electric Guitar Tonewood?
Before we begin, I should mention that tonewoods don't have nearly as much of an effect on the overall sound of an electric guitar as they do on an acoustic guitar. The guitar pickups, strings, signal chain and amplifier all play a huge role in the overall tone of an electric guitar. It's not all about the wood, though it is a factor.
Catalpa is rarely considered as a tonewood for electric guitars. This is true among small-shop luthiers and big-brand manufacturers.
For electric guitar construction, catalpa can certainly offer its superb attack and sustain characteristics as a body wood. However, its softness makes it a poor choice for necks and fretboards.
Is Catalpa A Good Electric Guitar Body Tonewood?
Catalpa is lightweight and relatively easy to work, making it a viable option for electric guitar bodies. In fact, its density (460 kg/m3 / 28.72 lb/ft3) and hardness (2,450 N / 550 lbf) are similar to the popular alder, swamp ash, basswood and poplar body tonewoods we often see in electric guitars.
However, catalpa hasn't broken into the mainstream to become a recognized electric guitar body wood and is largely ignored as a substitute for the aforementioned options. These standard options often cost less and are more widely accepted by the buying public.
The clean, clear tone of catalpa can really bring a neutral sound to a guitar, putting even more emphasis on the pickups' effect on the tone of an electric guitar.
Is Catalpa A Good Electric Guitar Neck Tonewood?
Though technically a hardwood, catalpa is too soft and prone to bending to withstand the pressures and strains of electric guitar necks.
Is Catalpa A Good Electric Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?
As the case with neck materials, catalpa is far too soft for practical use as a fretboard material. It would wear very quickly and cause poor playability.
Is Catalpa A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?
Catalpa is also a rare find in acoustic guitars, though it's certainly a viable option for acoustic and classical guitar builds, particularly in the bodies. Again, it's too soft for practical use in necks and fretboards.
Is Catalpa A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Back/Side Tonewood?
Catalpa is rather unstable after bending, though its tone can make up for its working difficulty when it comes to the back and sides of acoustic guitars.
The sustain of catalpa's can allow the guitar's sound to develop nicely. It's nice and resonant, which helps with the overall volume and fullness of the sound. The clarity and articulation play a role in defining the notes played. The relatively tame harmonic profile gives the guitar a clean, bright sound across the entire frequency range.
Washburn is a notable brand that uses catalpa as the back/sides in some of its acoustic and classical guitars.
Washburn is featured in My New Microphone's Top 13 Best Acoustic Guitar Brands In The World.
Examples of acoustic guitars with catalpa backs and sides:
- Washburn Festival EA15: acoustic with catalpa back and sides (flamed maple top)
- Washburn C5CE: classical with catalpa back and sides (spruce top)
Is Catalpa A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Top Tonewood?
Though catalpa is lightweight, like spruce and cedar, it's rarely considered as a soundboard/top wood. Its tame harmonic profile allows its tone to remain neutral, but this isn't optimal for top woods that often benefit from lots of sonic character.
The wood is not overly loud and yields a lower dynamic range than the standard top woods (spruce, cedar, mahogany). There are better choices for acoustic and classical tops, leaving catalpa out of consideration except for one-off and custom designs.
Is Catalpa A Good Acoustic Guitar Neck Tonewood?
Catalpa is too soft and prone to bending to withstand the pressures and strains of acoustic guitar necks.
Is Catalpa A Good Acoustic Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?
Catalpa is generally considered not dense or strong enough to use as an electric guitar fretboard tonewood.
Is Catalpa A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?
Catalpa is rare in bass guitars, too. Its neutral tone, great sustain and articulate highs can benefit bass guitars across their frequency spectrums. The wood is lightweight, giving it an ergonomic advantage as a solid body wood. However, like with 6-string guitars, it's out of the question as a neck or fretboard wood due to its softness.
Of course, there are plenty of other tonewoods besides catalpa. Here is a list of other tonewoods with links to check out more in-depth articles on each:
- Panga Panga
- Pau Ferro